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COLLEGE SPORTS

Stanford’s puzzling cut of field hockey leaves a Waltham athlete with a murky future in the sport

Stanford freshman Caroline Guden, a Milton Academy alumna from Waltham, has entered the transfer portal to keep her options open.
Stanford freshman Caroline Guden, a Milton Academy alumna from Waltham, has entered the transfer portal to keep her options open.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

DURHAM, N.H. — When Caroline Guden and her Stanford field hockey teammates faced off with the University of Maine on Thursday, they did so with black tape covering the bold “Stanford” across their jerseys.

“We’re playing for each other now,” said the Waltham-born Guden.

The freshman midfielder may be wearing the cardinal red this spring, but her field hockey future is murky, as Stanford is discontinuing field hockey and 10 other sports at the conclusion of this season.

Stanford is just one of many Division 1 programs across the country cutting “non-revenue” sports in the wake of the pandemic. Most of these sports serve as feeders to the Olympics, with student-athletes also pursuing national-team careers simultaneously or immediately following their college days.

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What makes the Stanford cuts — particularly field hockey — most surprising is that the school has enormous resources compared with its Division 1 counterparts. The Palo Alto, Calif., institution offers 36 varsity programs, everything from football to fencing. (In comparison, Boston College offers 26, Boston University 23, and Northeastern 17.) Stanford has an endowment of $28.9 billion, and 4.9 percent of it is spent on university operations each year.

Its athletic fund-raising is equally as successful, and it shows: Stanford has won 152 national championships and 270 Olympic medals. An additional indicator of success is 25 straight Learfield IMG College Director’s Cups, which honor “institutions maintaining a broad-based program, achieving success in many sports.”

Twelve percent of Stanford students play varsity sports, thought to be the highest percentage in the nation.

Field hockey has been a part of Stanford’s offerings since 1903, and the program won championships before the NCAA officially added women’s titles. The Cardinal have had many field hockey players continue on to Olympic teams, for the US and other nations. So when Guden and her parents, Daniel and Maureen, were deciding on a college choice, they had no reason to question Stanford’s commitment.

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“She committed in January of her junior year,” said Daniel, who played football at Holy Cross. “It was a combination of the academics and the athletic excellence that sold her.”

Caroline Guden battles a Maine player in a match at Durham, N.H. Note the black tape across the school name on the Stanford players' uniforms.
Caroline Guden battles a Maine player in a match at Durham, N.H. Note the black tape across the school name on the Stanford players' uniforms.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Caroline was awarded a partial scholarship, with a promise that if her field hockey skills continued to progress and she met performance targets, it could become larger. This type of scholarship is common in field hockey.

After Caroline’s graduation from Milton Academy, the Gudens prepared for her move to the West Coast. She had weekly Zoom calls with her teammates, and nothing seemed amiss with the program. In fact, the players spoke fondly of their 2019 trip to Australia to play and learn in a country where the sport is wildly popular. That doesn’t seem like something a program in financial distress would allow.

Then, last July 8, Guden was at her summer job when she received an email from Stanford’s athletic director saying she had to be on a Zoom call within a half-hour. She assumed it was about the season being postponed because of COVID-19.

“The first thing I noticed was that it was in webinar format, and that seemed odd,” Guden recalled. “Then our AD is on the screen and starts off, ‘OK, I am going to get straight to the point. The 11 sports on this call are being eliminated at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.’ I just blanked out after that.”

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Coaches on the call were learning the information alongside the student-athletes, having been given no notice.

Stanford explained that the 11 sports were chosen because “we concluded there was no realistic path to ensuring that they have all of the resources needed to compete at the highest level without hindering our ability to support our other 25 varsity sports.”

But wasn’t field hockey, with three conference titles the last four years and 17 NCAA tournament appearances, already competing at the highest level?

According to the Gudens, in their meetings with athletic administrators over the following weeks, the reasoning for the cuts seemed to be constantly changing.

Though their faith in the university had been eroded, and the performance-based options to grow her scholarship gone, Caroline moved west in the fall to begin her freshman year. All but one of her freshman teammates chose instead to take a gap year and reopen their recruitment.

“We were promised one last season, even though we didn’t know if there would even be a season,” said Caroline. “For me personally, I was ready to begin college.”

The team is getting that last season, even though it has to be in the spring instead of the fall, even though scheduling and travel restrictions mean they have to play some neutral-site games. (The game against Maine, for instance, had to be held here in Durham, N.H.)

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After beginning the season 7-0, the Cardinal lost games against America East foes Maine and UMass Lowell, 3-2, (though Guden scored her second goal of the season against the Riverhawks.) They reversed the trend Sunday, earning a 3-2 overtime victory over Albany and clinching a spot in the conference tournament.

Stanford (8-2) is scheduled to play Maine Thursday (11:30 a.m.) in an America East semifinal in West Long Branch, N.J., on the Monmouth campus.

This past week provided a glimmer of hope, as the lobbying group 36 Sports Strong, made up of Stanford alumni and current student-athletes, finally had a meeting with college president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. 36 Sports Strong presented a plan to endow and self-fund each cut team, which is being reviewed by the school.

Other organizations are actively fund-raising and lobbying, including Save Stanford Field Hockey. Several parents from the cut sports have retained sports law attorney Jeffrey Kessler to intervene, claiming that their children were deceived by the university during the recruitment process.

Guden has entered the NCAA transfer portal to provide herself options.

Looking back, the Gudens wish they had asked questions about the program’s viability during Caroline’s recruitment, but they don’t know if it would have changed much.

“You have to ask these questions when you are being recruited, but I don’t know if we would have gotten the answers, because even the coach was blindsided,” said Maureen. “It makes me pause, because if Stanford, who has so much, can’t afford these sports, how can any of these other schools make it work?”

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Stanford’s head coach, Greenfield native and UMass alum Tara Danielson, did not respond to the Globe’s request for an interview.